I was in a meeting the other day when an interesting thing happened.
The purpose of the meeting was to review the results of an information gathering process that had taken place throughout this organization.
The process had been a fairly lengthy one, conducted in numerous locations, and involved eliciting the opinions of a large number of employees.
Employees were asked to express their thoughts, opinions, ideas, suggestions, and concerns regarding a large number of topics including their views on morale within the company, how they felt they were treated by the company, the degree to which they felt appreciated by the organization, their views of the management of the organization and a host of other topics.
I had been responsible for the collection of all of this data and had done so using various methods including survey type questionnaires, focus group discussions, one on one interviews, and also by providing all employees with a toll-free number that they could call should they wish to, anonymously, share any thoughts or information that they felt might be of value to the organization.
The purpose of this exercise was to provide the senior management with an overview of what their employees thought about the company as a whole.
In total I interacted with approximately 400 different people in eleven geographic geographic regions and, as you can imagine, my report, which mostly consisted of verbatim transcripts of the notes I had taken during the sessions, was a lengthy and detailed one.
I had prepared copies of the report for each of the six managers and it was felt that a good place to begin the meeting was for each person to read through the report in its entirety and then discuss the content.
I knew it would take some time for the full report to be read and so I watched, intently as these six senior leaders of this company studiously devoured the details.
I was fascinated to see some of them nodding their heads in agreement as they read some of the points on the pages while others vigorously shook their heads while reading the same information.
Watching the differences in their reactions while reading the report was a powerful reminder of the old saw that informs us that “there is no such thing as good news or bad news, there is just news,” and that all information is neutral until we place meaning on it and that the meaning we place on it will determine the impact it has on us.
Their different reactions told me we were in for an interesting discussion.
When it appeared that they had all finished the reading assignment I asked for their observations.
Immediately one of the managers lifted the report into the air, slammed it down on the table, and loudly proclaimed “This is the biggest pile of $#!+ I have ever seen.
“I don’t know why we waste our time on stupid, meaningless projects like this. What are we hoping to accomplish by asking people to share their thoughts and opinions with us when most of them have no idea what they are talking about?
“I cannot believe some of the garbage I have just read. I read their concerns and complaints and cannot believe this nonsense. They are just so wrong on so many of the things they talk about. They make no sense at all and, I for one, don’t think we should ever do this again. It is just gratuitous whining and a monumental waste of time.”
I sensed some of his peers becoming agitated by his outburst so naturally, as a highly trained and skilled facilitator, I asked him a series of stupid questions.
I asked him whether he agreed that we had asked his employees for their opinions.
He replied that we had asked them for their opinions but that their opinions were wrong.
I asked him whether he agreed that just because they were expressing their opinions as being representative of fact, was it not possible that what he had just read was indeed valid in that, while he may disagree with their statements, they were simply expressing their feeling and opinions.
And their feelings and opinions were indicative of what they believed to be true.
He glared at me as if the village idiot had just entered the room.
He replied, again, that their opinions were wrong because their concerns were wrong. I asked him whether it was possible that if opinions, represented as facts, could in fact be wrong then was it not possible, that his opinion of their opinions, which he was representing as fact, could also possibly be wrong?
I noticed some of his colleagues quietly grinning to themselves and so, encouraged by their tacit support I boldly him why, if asking employees for their opinions is such a stupid idea, did he so strongly support this initiative when it had originally been proposed some six weeks earlier and – because he was not yet quite sufficiently apoplectic – could his reason for supporting the initiative back then have been based on his opinion at the time that the collective opinions of the staff would be far more supportive of the organization and management than they turned out to be and that now that he had read their actual ,not anticipated opinions, his opinion of the value of this process had changed?
In other words, to simplify, could his present opinion have been formed because his previous opinion of the value of this initiative had been changed because his expectations of the results had not been met?
I’m not sure if those last two sentences make any sense at all although I did have fun writing them – but here is something I am absolutely sure of.
Every single one of us harbors many opinions about different topics and, for the most part, most of us believe that our opinions, by virtue of being our opinions, are in fact correct and represent the truth. They are not therefore opinions, they are facts.
My friend, clearly believed this to be true.
At least as it applies to him. Unfortunately, he did not believe this to be true as it applies to others. Like so many of us, he really believed that their opinions, because they did not match his, were simply wrong and therefore not worthy of discussion. However, his opinions, which naturally represent irrefutable fact, were correct, and therefore must stand.
I too have an opinion.
Of course, as this is my opinion, it is in fact, irrefutable, and if you don’t agree with me you’re just plain wrong.
Now here’s my opinion.
I believe our world would be a far better place if each one of us was willing to hold everything that we believe to be true up to the light for examination.
That is not to say that we need change any of our opinions but just that we are willing to look at them through a different lens and except that, while we may, and do, absolutely believe our opinions to be true and therefore factual, we need also accept that those with opposing opinions probably have the same level of conviction as to the factual truth of their opinions and that while we may never share opinions with them we can, and should, respect their opinions as being their opinions, respect their right to those opinions, and collaborate with them to try and create an environment in which we can all live happily together despite the diversity of opinions we may have.
If we could achieve this level of harmonious differences of opinion we might actually find ourselves living in a society with fewer grievances, fewer wars, less conflict and more joy.
And I don’t believe anyone could possibly think that that would be a bad thing.
That’s my opinion/fact.
Till we read again.